Computing Applications

Why HCI Should Listen to Mothers

Judy Robertson

Being a new mother is hard. While society celebrates the romantic idea that early motherhood is a joyous and sacred time, the reality is not so straightforwardly positive.  It is physically demanding, but also emotionally challenging: new mothers report a spectrum of emotions including exhaustion, loneliness, fear, guilt and resentment [1]. HCI has recently begun to explore how technologies can assist women in this difficult period. We held a workshop at CHI 2013 on Motherhood and HCI to explore the opportunities in this space, listening to the experiences of (mostly) female researchers, discussing existing technology which is already supporting mothers and exploring new research prototypes.

A good example of using the capabilities of new technology to help new mums is FeedFinder, developed by Madeline Balaam and her team at Culture Lab, University of Newcastle. It's a location based app which helps mothers to find suitable places to breastfeed their babies when they are not at home. Breastfeeding has positive health outcomes for babies, but a relatively low proportion exclusively breastfeed their children for the 6 month period recommended by the World Health Organisation. One contributing factor to this may be logistical; babies need fed when their mothers are out and about but finding a good spot for feeding can be hard. In an ideal world, babies would be able to suckle happily anywhere but in fact in some public places such as cafes, breastfeeding is not welcome. FeedFinder enables mothers to rate and review places where they live in terms of comfort, hygiene, privacy, baby facilities and affordability. By using the app, women can get together to support each other as well as getting practical advice about locations and tracking their baby's feeding habits. A particularly good aspect of the interface is that it can be used one handed by people holding a baby! On a personal note, I found many places to breastfeed my son where I live in Edinburgh – airports, park benches, primary schools, libraries, John Lewis baby change room, and a long list of cafes. The places I liked best were the ones with other mothers to chat to, with whom I could swap stories or trade advice or simply emphasise. FeedFinder would have been very useful then.

It's worth saying that the Motherhood and HCI workshop did attract some criticism, mostly from women. Some researchers were concerned by unintended implication that only women who are biological mothers can perform a nurturing role. This is clearly not true, and we never intended to imply this. Other researchers felt that we should not have excluded fathers, and that by focussing on mothers as a user group we were perpetuating the negative stereotype that childcare activities are "women's work". I have argued strongly against this view here and here so I shall simply summarise my point: because in the real world, women do considerably more childcare than men [2],(regardless of our longing for equality) HCI should be trying to help them out.

A workshop participant used the evocative phrase "blood, milk and tears" to refer to the challenging biological aspects of being a mother. In the political correctness of including more people with a wider definition of mothering, or telling fathers that nurturing is their joint responsibility, let's not forget the millions of women who mop up their blood, milk and tears every day. Let's design technology which assists in small ways, by helping mothers monitor the changes in their bodies, or find information or share experiences when they need to. Let's consult with mothers about the design of the technology they use, and invent new consultation methodologies to suit this user group if necessary.

Until we reach the wonderful era of gender equality, I say we should focus considerable design effort on women, on mothers and on mothering. If technology can make some of the more mundane tasks just a little easier, or some of the challenging experiences slightly more bearable then it will have been worth it. 


[1] Barclay, L., Everitt, L., Rogan, F., Schmied, V., Wyllie, A. Becoming a Mother — an Analysis of Women's Experience of Early Motherhood. (1997) Journal of Advanced Nursing 25, pp. 719–728.

[2] Schober, P. (2013). Gender equality and outsourcing of domestic work, childbearing, and relationship stability among British couples. Journal of Family Issues.34(1). 25-52.

PS: Did you notice that I managed to write this whole article without mention the Royal Baby?

Join the Discussion (0)

Become a Member or Sign In to Post a Comment

The Latest from CACM

Shape the Future of Computing

ACM encourages its members to take a direct hand in shaping the future of the association. There are more ways than ever to get involved.

Get Involved

Communications of the ACM (CACM) is now a fully Open Access publication.

By opening CACM to the world, we hope to increase engagement among the broader computer science community and encourage non-members to discover the rich resources ACM has to offer.

Learn More